Difference Between Cluster Headaches & Migraines

Migraines are severe headaches or throbbing on one side of the head.

Cluster headaches are periods of frequent attacks that last from weeks to months, usually followed by periods of remission. Remission occurs when there are no headaches for months or even years at a time.

Cluster headaches tend to occur during the same season every year.

Over 37 million Americans suffer from migraines each year, while approximately 1 million suffer from cluster headaches. 

Causes of migraines or cluster headaches

Cluster periods generally last several weeks to months. Cluster periods may have consistent starting dates and durations. Cluster periods, for instance, can occur seasonally, like every spring or fall.

Most people suffer from episodic cluster headaches. An episodic cluster headache lasts from one week to one year, followed by a pain-free remission period lasting three months or longer.

A chronic cluster period can last more than a year, while a pain-free period might last less than a month. Cluster headaches are associated with a nerve in the face that causes intense pressure around one eye.

Triggers for migraines

  • Consumption of alcohol
  • Relaxing after a stressful situation
  • Hormone changes
  • Food or food additives
  • Stress
  • Medications
  • Intense physical activity or exertion
  • Sensory or light stimuli

You may experience migraine-like nausea and aura before a cluster headache strikes. Cluster headaches usually strike suddenly without warning. Many people mistake cluster headaches for seasonal allergies since they occur during certain seasons.

Risk factors for migraines or cluster headaches

Depending on whether it is a cluster headache or migraine, risk factors vary.

Migraine risk factors

  • Age – A person’s migraines tend to start during their adolescence and peak around their 30s.
  • Gender – migraines affect women three times more than men.
  • Family history – migraines are more likely to occur if a family member suffers from them.
  • Hormonal change – Women may experience migraines before menstruation when their hormone levels are high.

Cluster headache risk factors

  • Gender – Cluster headaches tend to affect men more than women.
  • Age – Cluster headaches usually occur between the ages of 20 and 50.
  • Smoking-cluster headaches are more likely to occur in smokers.
cluster headaches and migraine

Symptoms of migraines vs cluster headache

Cluster headaches and migraines have different symptoms.

Symptoms of migraines

  • Severe headache on one side
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Vomiting
  • Temporary blurred vision
  • Symptoms can last up to 72 hours

Symptoms of cluster headaches

  • Sudden occurrence of pain
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • The symptoms are shorter than migraines, but they can frequently recur over time.
  • Keeps you awake at the middle of the night

Diagnosis of migraines or cluster headaches

During a physical and neurological exam, your neurologist will diagnose your migraine or cluster headaches. The doctor will take your medical and family history, evaluate your symptoms, and order other tests to confirm the diagnosis during the exam.

Testing may include:

  • Blood tests – Blood tests can determine whether infections or toxins in your blood cause your symptoms.
  • Imaging – MRI or CT scan test can provide detailed images of the brain to detect tumors or other conditions.
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture) – to determine whether the brain is infected, a spinal tap may be performed.

How to Treat Migraine vs. Cluster Headache?

Be aware of what you are doing when you get a headache. Knowing what causes an attack may help you prevent it. In addition, certain factors may trigger either a migraine or cluster headache. These include:

  • Mental stress
  • Changes in your sleep routine
  • Too much alcohol
  • Bright light
  • Travel to high altitudes

Consult a specialist if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • A severe headache that feels like a thunderclap
  • If you have a headache accompanied by fever, nausea, vomiting, a stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, numbness, or difficulty speaking, you may be suffering from a stroke, meningitis, encephalitis, or a brain tumor
  • Minor falls or bumps can cause headaches, especially if they worsen over time
  • There is a sudden, severe headache unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before
  • A headache that worsens over days and changes in pattern

Your doctor will likely approach each condition differently. For example, to ease single attacks, you may need therapy. This is called acute or rescue treatment.

A lot of headaches may require medication to lessen their severity or frequency. This is known as “prophylactic” treatment or preventive treatment.

Be sure to discuss with your doctor about your headaches and all the symptoms they cause. It doesn’t matter what’s causing your head pain; treatment will help you feel better. Consult your doctor or a neurologist to determine what’s right for you. Visit NeuroX to get an online consultation from our expert board-certified neurologists.

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